Back in the Dark Ages of Hearty Burgundy and Pseudo Chablis, there was also a Dark Knight (no, not that one), Spain’s Freixenet Cordon Negro. “Black Bottle Bubbly” put in appearances at celebrations of every sort, completely dominating the non-champagne market. And it still rates high on the bubbles-per-buck scale of lifestyle mags such as Wine & Spirits and Food & Wine.
Cava, as these sparkling wines are called in Spain, is almost exclusively produced in the Penedés region of Catalonia not far from Barcelona, and it is almost always made from three white grapes: parellada, macabeo, and xarel-lo. Most Cavas are produced in the traditional French manner in which a secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle. Yet, compared to the big-C French bubbly, they’re cheap. Really cheap.
Both price and quality have contributed to the increasing visibility of Cavas on American shelves. And since there’s always a celebration of some kind going on in San Antonio it seemed time to survey the pack. Leaving out the most popular brands such as Freixenet and Codorniu, we put together a selection of nine bottles (of which eight made the cut) and assembled a team of tasters in the basement of Zinc Bistro & Wine Bar; it’s a setting with cave-like connotations of its own, temperature included.
The tasters were Kristene Bainbridge of Prestige Wine Cellars; Bonnie Walker, longtime local food writer and a founder/editor of the SavorSA website; Chris Boone of Boudro’s catering department; and myself. Zinc also provided snacks and, as a food shoot involving paella had just taken place, we were the beneficiaries of that largesse as well.
Cristalino Extra Dry Cava, $8-$9
We admit that we’re a little surprised at the winner, the cheapest wine of the lot (it’s sometimes under $8) and one with a touch of sweetness at that. But rather than actually tasting sweet, the Cristalino Extra Dry simply seemed fuller, more voluptuous than the other contenders. “I got a little petrol, along with Meyer lemon, peaches, pear…” said Walker. Bainbridge detected roasted coffee bean. “There’s an intense nose and a roundness on the palate,” offered Boone, who thought of it with Indian food. It was pretty good with the paella, too.
Cristalino Brut Rosé Cava, $8-$9
We’ll get over it, but an equally cheap cellar mate of the Extra Dry, the Cristalino Brut Rosé, came in at number two. Bainbridge got roses and raspberry, Walker strawberry, and Boon cherry, so take your pick. Omniboire found it a little cloying, but somebody had to buck the tide.
Casteller Brut Cava, $11
Another inexpensive bottle, the Casteller Brut Cava, weighed in at number three with comments such as “I would buy this — it’s got a pear core and a line of salinity and minerality” (Bainbridge); “There’s pretty fruit on the nose, and it follows up with white peach” (Walker); “melon, pear, and apple” (Boone); “juicy and smacky” (Omniboire — we liked this one).
Poema Brut Cava, $11-$12
Wine four was the Poema Brut Cava, another traditional blend from Penedés. Bainbridge was specific on this one: “Bosc pear.” And she also called it “unbalanced.” While one taster found the nose “full,” another thought it “evasive, though with a hint of vanilla.” Omniboire claimed, “Creamy yet zippy on the palate,” leading to a split decision.
Naveran Dama Cava 2006, $20
The Naveran Dama Cava is distinctively packaged and vintage-dated (2006). It’s also unique in its blend of 85-percent chardonnay and 15-percent parellada. Walker thought it “austere” for a Cava, but with some almond flavor. Boone suggested it dropped off quickly; Bainbridge agreed, finding an intense nose but little beyond that. Moral: drink this one quickly before it fades.
Paul Cheneau Lady of Spain Brut Cava, $10
The number six Paul Chenau Lady of Spain Brut Cava comes in a stylish (or cheesy, depending on your point of view) jacketed bottle with the stereotypical lady herself featured. Inside the bottle, most tasters found an “easy-drinking,” “nice, average Cava.” When pushed, some conjured both apple skin and core (we don’t know what happened to the flesh) and some “lemony aspects.”
Gran Sarao Brut Cava, $11
Reventós I Blanc l’Hereu Reserva Brut Cava 2007, $20
Rounding out the pack were the Gran Sarao Brut Cava (“white grape and a little yeast — which I like,” thought Walker; “oily and heavy,” countered Bainbridge) and the sparkler with the longest name and the highest price, the Reventós I Blanc l’Hereu Resereva Brut 2007. This last wine barely squeaked by in the initial, blind tasting (and the scoring reflects that stage), but it revealed all kinds of nuance the longer it sat in the flute. We even tried it in a standard cabernet stem.
We are now going to leap to a conclusion based on totally insufficient evidence: though it’s contrary to expectations, let the reserve-style Cavas bloom in the glass for a time to capture their full potential. “It’s not as bitter now, there’s better fruit,” remarked Walker. “It just keeps getting better; it’s amazing how glassware `and warming up` changed it,” commented Boone. “I’m getting pencil lead and licorice… It’s not perceived as a sparkler now,” summed up Bainbridge. Conclusion two: experiment with glassware; don’t feel obliged to use the traditional vessel. Conclusion three: apply the first two conclusions to other wines as well — or to life, if you choose. •